The rectangular peephole slid open, showing the eyes of an elderly woman, then shut suddenly. A few seconds later, the large door opened inward and the nurse of the temple of Adussk, the god of healing, bowed in reverence before the Governor of Bastul.
Adair Lorus walked through the door and motioned for the woman to rise. Although it still made him uncomfortable, he had come to expect this reverent behavior from his subjects. Each of the royal guards at his flanks carried spears in their right hands and torches in their left, casting a flickering orange glow around the trio, barely fighting back the darkness of the night.
“I was told you have a man in your custody…a sick man.”
“Yes, my lord,” the old woman responded. “He has been here since yesterday morning, unconscious and silent until a few hours ago. But then he started moaning your name, so I sent for you. I hope I have not disturbed you,” she stated quickly.
“Not at all. Thank you for notifying me. May I see him?” he asked, unnecessarily.
“…at once, my lord.” The woman turned to Adair’s right and began walking down a long hall. The dark green fabric of her veil and floor-length tunic billowed as she hurried through the dark passage, restricted only by the leather apron tied at her waist. The sound of their footsteps echoed off the stone floor as they passed numerous doorways and candles burning in sconces along the stone walls. The hall turned to the left and continued for another hundred feet before it ended at a door. The woman pulled a set of keys from her apron.
With a nod of confirmation, she unlocked the door and pushed it open. Adair walked slowly into the room, unsure of what he might find. The guards followed closely, their torches adding to the light from a small lamp hanging on the wall. The soft illumination showed a man lying on top of the sheets, covered in bandages, and throwing his head back and forth. If he had been moaning before, he showed no signs of it now.
“Where did you find this man?”
“A soldier brought him to me. He said they found him on the western shore.”
Adair wrinkled his eyebrows as he walked over to the bed. “Is he awake?”
“No, my lord. It only appears that way because he moves so much.”
Adair stood over the bed with his hands clasped behind his back. It was plain to see that the man was badly injured. He had a large bandage around his left thigh and the skin on his face and arms was burned and peeling. His hair was gray, flecked with brown, and matted on his head. Adair looked at his face but didn’t recognize him.
“No…” the man mumbled and then flinched as if dodging something.
Suddenly, a memory sprang into Adair’s mind. He had dealt with this man before on the matter of neglecting to pay a shipping tax. Usually, any crime against the Empire, no matter how small, was punishable by death under Orudan law. Adair had shown mercy on the man and let him live. After that, the man tried to repay Adair’s kindness by sending word of any criminal happenings around the city, as he became aware of them. Adair had to admit that this man had proven to be a useful informant on several occasions, but he hadn’t heard anything from him in almost a year.
As the man’s name came back to his memory, Adair said it aloud. “Bahari.”
“Do you know him, my lord?” the old woman asked.
“Yes,” Adair answered, wondering why Bahari would be moaning his name. “You said he was found on the western shore?”
“Yes, my lord. That’s what the soldier told me. I’ve…” she started, but then trailed off.
Adair turned to her. “What is it, woman? If you know something, tell me at once!”
“I’ve seen this type of thing before,” she answered, her body language more timid than before. “A man gets in a drunken fight and finds himself washed up on the beach. I thought this was another such occurrence,” she said, her voice lowering to a whisper. “But when I cleaned the wound on his leg I pulled this out.”
Reaching into the pocket of her apron, she produced what appeared to be the dangerous half of an arrow. She handed it to Adair and he took it carefully.
The craftsmanship was better than what the Orud military used, but he couldn’t place it.
“How was it positioned in his leg?”
“May I…?” the woman asked, motioning for the arrow.
“Please,” Adair said, handing it back to her.
“It entered from the back,” she said, holding it up to Bahari’s leg. “But it wouldn’t come out so I had to take it out from the front. It wasn’t easy, but he didn’t even seem to notice.”
Adair looked back at Bahari and shook his head. What did you get yourself into this time? “I am leaving for a while, but I will be back,” he said to the woman. “While I am gone, keep his door locked and let no one else see him.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said with a nod.
Adair strode out of the room with the guards following closely. When he reached the front door, he called over his shoulder to the old woman who was struggling to keep up. “If he wakes up, try to find out what happened.”
* * * *
The sun had just peeked over the mountains to the east and the Bay of Bastul glittered with the first rays of the morning sunlight. Maeryn stood on the balcony of her bedroom with her hands on the stone railing. Her night clothes and long blonde tresses swayed in the light breeze as she took a deep breath of the salty air and exhaled. Adair wasn’t in bed when she woke and the sheets were cold. He had obviously left sometime during the night and it was bothering her. It wasn’t as if this was the first time. Actually, it was a regular occurrence for someone of Adair’s position. But Maeryn was finding it harder and harder to deal with his absences. When you’re the governor of Bastul, everyone needs something from you. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and yawned, walking back into the bedroom.
The house was already alive with activity. The slaves had been awake for a couple hours and were scurrying around the house, busy with their duties. Maeryn pulled a fresh white tunic from her closet and slipped it over her head. The purple thread sewn into the hem dragged on the floor until she gathered the tunic at her waist and fastened it with a matching purple silk belt. She walked barefoot to her mirror set against the wall and sat down in the chair which faced it. Voices drifted to her from different parts of the house as she combed her hair, but she hardly heard them. She was unable to stop thinking about Adair and her thoughts turned from irritation at his increasing responsibilities to worry about his safety.
After combing out a night’s worth of tangles, she wove her hair into a simple braid that hung down to the middle of her back, tying the ends of the thick locks with a narrow ribbon. On the table next to her comb were two elaborately decorated glass bottles of rose oil, a rare treat in her culture. Adair had purchased each of them on separate occasions from a merchant friend of his that passed through Bastul only a few times a year. She pulled the glass stopper from the older of the two bottles and applied a drop to each wrist and one on either side of her neck.
Now ready for the day, Maeryn left her bedroom and descended the stairs leading toward the center of the house, remembering Kael’s excitement about a new project that he and Saba were going to start in the morning. As she reached the first floor, the garden courtyard came into view between white stone columns which supported the overhanging roof. She headed through the center two columns and down a circular set of stairs that led to the gravel floor. The bright morning sun reflected off the top of the house to her left, leaving the rest of the open area in morning shadows. By noon, the sun would be shining straight down into the garden and the many trees and flowers would bask in the warmth.
Just as she suspected, Kael and Saba were at the other end of the garden. As she approached, Saba stood from a kneeling position at the base of a small tree.
“Good morning, Maeryn,” he said in a soft voice.
“Mother,” exclaimed Kael, running toward her and throwing his arms around her waist.
Maeryn reached down and stroked Kael’s shoulder-length blonde hair. His blue eyes were bright, especially when he was excited about something. Most boys his age would be embarrassed to hug their mothers. But not Kael; he was different—special. “Good morning, you two. And what are you working on now?” she asked.
Kael answered excitedly before Saba had a chance. “Saba is going to show me how to graft a branch onto this tree. They are different species, but he says they will grow together if we are very careful.”
Maeryn smiled at his excitement, then looked to Saba. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“My pleasure,” he whispered back.
Saba was an old man, old and wise. He was tall, with silver hair that fell past his broad shoulders and a beard that was just as long. Between the beard and his thick eyebrows, most of his features were covered, except his straight, sharp nose and bright blue eyes.
Adair first met him seven years ago when he needed some information. Adair didn’t tell her much, except that he was impressed with the man’s wealth of knowledge. It seemed that they had just discussed what to do about Kael’s education only weeks before and couldn’t come to a decision. They both agreed that the usual Orud upbringing did not interest them. Most of the education revolved around the history of the Empire and the lineage of Emperors from the first to the most recent. Beyond that, the education was simply a preparation for becoming a soldier.
And then Saba came into their lives. He was knowledgeable about many different cultures, history, religions, economics, nature, and weather. Actually, Maeryn couldn’t think of a single thing that Saba didn’t know about. Not once had he ever responded to a question with “I don’t know” as his answer. Yet, he wasn’t arrogant in any way. In fact, he was one of the most humble people that either of them had ever met. That, combined with his patient and kind personality made him the perfect tutor for their son. Adair wasted no time approaching him on the matter, taking great care to emphasize the fact that the pay for tutoring the governor’s son would be quite handsome. They made sure there was no way he would refuse. And he didn’t.
That was seven years ago, when Kael was only three years old, and Saba had since become part of their family. Maeryn watched as he knelt down and talked to Kael. He was so patient and gentle, and Kael’s eyes lit up with excitement every time Saba was near. The agreement had always been that he would tutor Kael in a variety of subjects for several hours each morning. The hours would get longer as Kael got older, but at the beginning, the tutoring was to end by midday so Kael would also have the time to play like every child should. The tutoring eventually evolved into something much less formal. The two became friends and did everything together. Whether play or work, every situation became a teaching experience and Kael thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.
“Have you seen Adair this morning?”
Saba looked up and shook his head. “He was gone before I woke.”
Maeryn smiled nervously.
“Have fun, you two,” she replied, turning to leave.
As she reached the steps to the house she turned around to watch them from a distance. They were both kneeling by the tree, as Saba pointed at the peeling bark and explained some incredibly detailed information that would have bored her. But Kael was enthralled. As she watched, her thoughts returned to her husband and she wondered how long it would be until she would see him again.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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